In 2003, I was patrolling the northern Persian Gulf when the U.S. Navy launched a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles that started a war that would last for the next seven years. A dozen warships floated quietly in the dark waiting for the predetermined hour to launch. When the time came, the ocean lit up like it was daytime, as all the missiles screamed high into the air. It’s strange watching the beginning of a real war on television. It’s even stranger knowing you’re one of the people who started it. It was like watching a movie, only we got to decide how it ended. It was real, but happening to someone else. In a few short months, my perspective would shift significantly.
After I finished my first tour on a ship, all I wanted was a second tour on the ground. I was tired of being so far removed from the action. I heard about an opportunity to work with the Marine Corps as a naval gunfire liaison officer, planning surface-fire support missions for Marines conducting opposed amphibious landings. It meant stepping off the ship and into a combat zone. During this deployment, I experienced my first firefight, my first time killing someone up close, and my first time seeing a friend get killed. I was so close to hundreds of explosions s that I still imagine feeling the shock waves pushing me off balance.
I also saw Iraq’s first free, democratic elections.My next assignment took me from the scorching sands of Iraq to the beautiful, pristine beaches of Miami, Florida. As a staff officer in the headquarters of the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), I was in charge of coordinating maritime operations throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. During this tour, I traveled to more countries in two years than I thought possible in two lifetimes. Above the door leading into the Naval Academy’s chapel is inscribed the Latin phrase Non sibi sed patriae, which translates as “Not for self, but for country.” Graduating the Academy is the end of four years of preparation and the beginning of a lifetime of service to the nation. No one can tell you what that service will entail or where it will take you. For me, it has meant a journey through the streets of Iraq and Haiti, into the jungles of South America, the Arctic Circle, over the mountains of Afghanistan, and through the steamy waters of the Persian Gulf.
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That Christmas morning in Iraq was the last time that the insurgent in my crosshairs ever buried a bomb. As soon as he began lifting an artillery shell from the back of his truck, my team accomplished our mission. I radioed for an extraction as soon as the dust settled and waited for the vehicles to arrive. As the convoy approached our position, I walked toward the first vehicle, slowly waving my arms above my head so they wouldn’t mistake us for the enemy. A young Army sergeant hopped out of the passenger side door and ran up to me. He looked at my Marine Corps fatigues. My last name was written in black thread on one side with “U.S. Navy” on the other. It must have been quite a confusing sight: a sailor dressed like a Marine in the middle of the desert.
“There isn’t an ocean around for miles,” he joked. “You must’ve gotten lost.”
I just smiled and replied, “We serve where we’re needed.”
“We Serve Where We’re Needed” by Johnathan Van Meter is from the recently published book “IN THE SHADOW OF GREATNESS: Voices of Leadership, Sacrifice, and Service From America’s Longest War.” It is edited by Joshua Welle, John Ennis, Katherine Kranz and Graham Plaster and reprinted by permission of the Naval Institute Press.